RALEIGH, N.C. — A brutal spring storm raged across North Carolina on Saturday, flattening businesses, flipping cars and destroying homes, leaving an unknown number of casualties from a system already blamed for killing 17 people in four states.
North Carolina officials said there were multiple fatalities and they were working to confirm the exact number. Urban search and rescue teams were in two counties looking for residents who might be trapped in damaged buildings.
In South Carolina, a church with six people inside collapsed after it was hit by a tornado, but somehow no one was injured. And in Sanford, N.C., the manager of a Lowe's hardware store was credited with saving more than 100 workers and employees by ushering them to the back of the store, which acted as a makeshift shelter as the weather rolled in.
The storms began in Oklahoma on Thursday, then roared through Arkansas, Mississippi, Alabama and Georgia.
Seven people each were killed in Arkansas and Alabama, which was hit a day earlier. A father, his son and his daughter were killed near Montgomery; a mother and her two teenage sons died in a mobile home in the southwest part of the state, and the storm claimed the life of an elderly man whose trailer was tossed nearly a quarter of a mile across a state highway.
Gov. Robert Bentley visited some of the devastated areas and declared the entire state a disaster.
Things looked similar in North Carolina. Roofs were ripped off stores, trees were plucked out of the ground and "scores" of homes were damaged, emergency management director Doug Hoell said.
Police in Raleigh evacuated residents at a mobile park, and emergency crews went door-to-door looking for people injured or trapped by the storm that flipped mobile homes from one side of the street to the other.
Guillermo Villela, 34, said he saw two young children at the park trapped under fallen trees.
"I see a lot of disaster. It's bad," Villela said.
In the town of Sanford in central North Carolina, what could have been a deadly catastrophe was averted when a Lowe's manager saw the approaching storm. The front of Lowe's was flattened by the storm, with cars in the parking lot tossed around and flipped on their roofs.
"It was really just a bad scene," said Jeff Blocker, Lowe's regional vice president for eastern North Carolina. "You're just amazed that no one was injured."
Blocker credits his store manager and the other 40 to 50 employees in the store at the time with getting the as many as 70 customers safely to the rear.
Cindy Hall, a Red Cross volunteer and outreach minister at First Baptist Church in Sanford, said dozens of homes in the area were damaged.
"It wiped out our St. Andrews neighborhood, which includes about 30 homes," she said.
There were 62 separate reports of tornadoes in the state, according to NC public safety spokeswoman Julia Jarema. To the west, hikers were rescued after being briefly stranded by flash floods brought on by the heavy rains. Hundreds of thousands of people were without power in the Carolinas and storm shelters were opening in various communities.
In Alabama, residents were reeling. Steve Hollon had recently retired from the Air Force and moved into his father's home with his wife and two daughters while they remodeled a house of their own up the road. He had come to the small community of Boone's Chapel, about 25 miles from Montgomery, to be closer to his dad, Willard Hollon.
The storm demolished Willard Hollon's home and his daughter Cheryl's house. They were both killed, along Steve.
Willard's brother, Henley Hollon, lived across the street. He had come outside after the storm passed to check on everyone. As the winds whirled and the lights went out, all he saw were a set of wooden steps and flowerbeds. The blooms were still on the plants as though nothing happened.
"When I shined the light out there I could see it was all gone," Henley Hollon said.
Willard Hollon's wife, Sarah, his granddaughters and Steve's wife all survived.
A weather service meteorologist estimated that the tornado's winds reached 140 to 150 mph.
Hymnals still rested on the pews at the nearby Boone's Chapel Baptist Church, even though the walls and roof had blown away. Tammie Silas joined other church members, cleaning up the debris. She came upon two Hollon family photos that were pulled from debris scattered over a quarter-mile.Comment on this story
"This is all they've got left," Silas said as she clutched the pictures.
Later, Gov. Bentley looked at the Hollon family photos. Henley Hollon told Bentley he and his wife didn't have time to get into a hallway when they realized the tornado was hitting.
"If God wanted us, we was in the big room, where He could have got us," Hollon said. "I don't try to outguess God."
Rawls reported from Boone's Chapel, Ala. Associated Press writers Jay Reeves in Birmingham; Chuck Bartels and Jeannie Nuss in Little Rock, Ark.; Nomaan Merchant in Bald Knob, Ark.; Kristi Eaton in Tushka, Okla.; Holbrook Mohr in Jackson, Miss.; and Jeff Martin and Jacob Jordan in Atlanta contributed to this report.